To say this film is great is a grave understatement as its uncompromising nature and cinema verite approach to story telling elevate it above all other films of the year. What this film does so well is connect you with the protagonists in a simple, yet very effect manner. Once the initial setup and character introductions are complete, the rest of the film is spent following them through the harsh wilderness. In doing so, Lu Chuan places the viewer in the same dire situation as the mountain patrol. We’re with them as they brave harsh winds, freezing water, sun-baked plains, and treacherous, snow-covered mountains. We feel their anguish as they come under attack from seemingly invisible assailants. We sense their fear and pessimism as they struggle to survive in this breathtakingly beautiful, yet ultimately deadly landscape. All this to protect Tibetan antelope. The fact that they’re willing to risk everything for this unseen animal says more about their character than any amount of dialogue. They do this without a paycheck and with the knowledge that they’ll probably have little to no success. By giving the antagonist so little screen time, Lu Chuan is able to broaden this story and give it global context, declaring that attitudes and actions such as this should be condemned outright. It also serves to elevate the protagonists above ordinary heroes as it can be interpreted that they’re not just doing this for the Tibetan antelope, but endangered animals everywhere.
Filmed as a semi-documentary, Mountain Patrol does not portray the patrollers as one-dimensional heroes as some Hollywood flicks might have done. We see them, during their red-hot pursuit, rough-handling a minor offender caught with antelope hair instead of cotton padding his coat and a couple of worm catchers who happened to have witnessed the poacher passing by. But these are minor, as we gradually come to understand that desperate for financial resources, as they were only semi-official and not paid by the provincial government, the mountain patrol resorted to selling some of the pelts they confiscated from the poachers. But the lasting impression left with us of the mountain patrol would be their humanity, their simple zest for life, their comradeship, their self-sacrificing spirit and their absolute dedication to doing what they believe in. Kekexili is a deeply moving account of a true story crying out to be told, and has won awards in Tokyo and Taiwan. It deserves to be seen by the rest of the world.
Adding to this, Mountain Patrol is certainly also a must-see for anybody interested in the “Tibetan Question”, as it shows life in the Tibetan highlands from a very uncommon angle: It’s a Chinese view of “Shangri-La”, torn between admiration of its spirituality and humanity and, on the other side, shocked amazement by its harshness and inhumanity. Generally, it’s a universal approach independent of ideology, and that’s never to be taken for granted whenever Tibet is involved (needless to say that this concerns the American or European image of Tibet as well). Tibet is a country that many in the west have a very romantic image of – a culture and lifestyle as far removed from modern, urban society as any on earth. The reality of Tibetan life in the modern age is probably that it’s tough, first and foremost. Kekexili is a simple film, telling the story with no bells and whistles or attempt to shoehorn in clichéd dramatic devices, or to make the characters fit particular archetypes. People and events are presented plainly as the patrol pursue a group of poachers over the gorgeous backdrop of the mountain wilderness, risking their lives to protect the endangered antelope – but compromising themselves ethically along the way too.
In addition to the breathtaking scenes of the Tibetan plateau, better seen on the wide screen than on TV, in a range of extremely challenging weather and geographic elements (one scene in quick sand is particularly harrowing), the views of Tibetan towns and quotidian life in the mountains are an intriguing sidelight. Mountain Patrol is a tricky movie to classify even when it’s clearly grounded in thriller and action roots due to the overpowering nature of the place where it’s set and its refusal to romanticize its two lead characters. If anything, it can be seen as a silent film, one that tells its story in mute yet powerful images, and in doing so, gets its message across. For the most part, the Tibetan actors are amateurs, but it works unbelievably well. The landscape will take your breath away just as quickly as it did for the patrolmen when they began to get bloody noses from the high altitudes. The film crew had a grueling time with this film; one member was killed in a car accident. Unforgiving climates, harsh and unvegetated terrain, and miles and miles with no towns…it’s quite a spectacle, like a frozen desert.